By Liam Higgins
A 1995 Frommers travel guide entry about Cuenca includes a sidebar titled, “Attention men!” It continues: “If you’ve ever thought of buying a custom-made suit, Cuenca is the place to do it. You’ll find some of the best tailors in Latin America here. Working with fine European cloth, they can make you a suit comparable in quality to those made in Paris, New York or Hong Kong for 10% to 20% the price. And they can complete the job in half the time.”
Little has changed in the past 20 years. Cuenca remains a recognized center for the suit-making craft, the city’s historic district sporting dozens of small tailor shops, most of them one-man operations. Many of the customers are businessmen from Guayaquil and Quito, who come to town for the quality and savings.
Cuenca’s tourists and expats have also taken advantage of the opportunity. Unlike locals who know the reputations of local tailors, however, they have a harder time picking a shop.
“There are so many options to choose from, it’s hard to know who makes good suits and who has the best quality,” says Ramon Cardenas, owner of Cuenca’s largest tailoring service, Sofine. “What I’ve done is to make the choice easier by assembling the best tailors in town in one place. We’ve a built a reputation that even foreigners will hear about.”
Born in Cuenca, Cardenas grew up in the tailoring trade. His family, including his father, who he learned from, has been in the business for 80 years. “It was natural for me to start the business.” Thirty-six years later, he has four shops in Cuenca.
Sofine’s slogan is “Hecho a mano,” and Cardenas says he stakes his company’s reputation on the fact. “Everything we do at Sofine is by hand. We don’t have a factory and we don’t mass produce. If you buy a suit from me, you have the best tailors in town putting it together for you.”
Much of Cardenas’ job is staying current with international styles. He reads international men’s magazines and scans the Internet for emerging fashion trends. He focuses on design centers such as Paris, Milan, New York and London. “You have to stay on top of the market in this business,” he says.
The process of having a suit made at Sofine is similar to that in tailor shops in the world’s top fashion centers. The customer chooses the material and the style, personalizes it, gets fitted, and returns several days later for final adjustments.
According to Cardenas, much of the cost of a suit depends on the fabric the customer chooses. “Our materials come from Italy, London, France, Spain, Colombia and the U.S.,” he says. “They are the best in the world.” The brands on many of the fabrics will be familiar: Zegna, Versace, Vitale Barberis, Armani, and Emilio Pucci. Other fabrics have less common names and cost less. The fabric the customer chooses can mean the difference between a $200 suit and one costing $1,000. A suit of the same fabric in New York would cost $1,200 to $7,500.
Many of Sofine’s customers bring in magazine photos of what they want. “We can duplicate any style you bring us, the more challenging the better,” says Cardenas.
After the basic style is chosen, the Sofine tailor will ask about personal preferences: peaked or notched lapels, single or double vent, natural, padded shoulders, two or three buttons. Some customers want a vest. “These are things that makes the suit yours, that make you feel comfortable,” says Cardenas.
Unlike tailor shops in New York and Milan, Sofine’s turn-around time is fast. The industry standard to make a suit, from start to finish, is five to six weeks. Sofine typically completes the process within 10 days to two weeks. In emergencies, Cardenas says, he can turn an order in four to six days.
Why buy a custom-tailored suit? According to Cardenas, it’s an issue of fit and pride. “If it fits the way you want it to, you feel good, you feel confident.” A good tailor understands the vagaries of human anatomy as well as fashion, such as the fact that for 75% of men, one arm is a quarter-inch longer than the other, and is often as much as half an inch longer (the same is true for legs). “You don’t get these kinds of adjustments in off-the-rack suits,” Cardenas says.
Sofine locations in Cuenca are:
Calle Juan Jaramillo 3-80 and Vargas Machuca, Tel. 283 1315, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Calle Presidente Córdova 8-80 and Benigno
Calle Benigno Malo 9-27 and Bolivar